In my mid-trip reflection, I spoke mainly about the contrast between my expectations prior to the trip and reality, as well as how learning more about the migrant crisis in Europe has left me with more questions than answers. Sitting down to write this, I was unsure what to say. I am sometimes hesitant to take a firm stance on anything, however, I love to play the devil’s advocate. I believe one of the best ways to learn more about someone’s stance on an issue is to put it to trial by fire and attempt to dismantle it. Some of my peers on the Vienna trip are now very familiar with this tendency of mine. Regardless, I found many opportunities to debate the ideas introduced to us in lectures throughout the trip. The problem was, however, that even when I spoke to students with completely opposite opinions, I found myself convinced by both parts sides of the argument. I think this speaks to the inherent complexity of the refugee crisis.
For example, in one post-lecture breakout group I learned that there was a reason we weren’t seeing one “side” of the Austrian debate on refugees. The professors had themselves debated whether there was anything to gain by speaking directly to members of the FPO, and whether this was worth acknowledging some of their discriminatory positions. In this situation, I believe both the decisions, the ultimately winning decision to refuse to validate the FPO and the decision to speak to party members would have been valid. The FPO takes an extremist position on multiple issues, and although they may be gaining support because of their harsh stance in the face of migration, they are a small group. Because of this, I understand the reasoning behind deeming them insignificant, and denying credence to some of their radical, human-rights-violating party goals. On the other end of the spectrum, however, I will admit that I was at first reproachful and uneasy that “we” (I say we to refer to the general consensus of opinion expressed by the professors and students on the Vienna trip) were excluding a voice – a voice “we” had strong disagreements with.
My uncertainty in this situation has everything to do with the way I am still mulling over what was only a small blip in my trip to Vienna, a footnote of a decision made before the trip began, a decision I didn’t have any say in. The impact that hearing about the FPO and not from them has left on me is also certainly because of the way this choice parallels events that have fascinated me in the US – on a large scale, and primarily, the reactions to Trump’s election, as well as the reactions to the refugee crisis in Europe. Regardless of what is the right thing to do when facing a hateful force we disagree with, one of the most powerful things my experience in Vienna has demonstrated to me is the effect of political polarity, and the way it drives people even further apart in the Davidson bubble and the world beyond.
My experience in Vienna has also left me in awe of the power of perspective. This theme of perspective was woven into almost every activity, and made me extremely grateful for the interdisciplinary nature of this trip. Some of the most marking moments of this trip had to do with the labeling of people, whether it be for their race, the number of years they had lived in a country, or the legal status of their migration. This last point was emphasized in many of our meetings, including the UN, where the opening slide of a PowerPoint presentation was, unsurprisingly, a list of the terms people use to refer to asylum seekers. At the IOM we discussed this once again. The meeting at the IOM in some ways comforted me; I relished hearing the clear guidelines the organization had in its efforts to assist asylum seekers, the specific steps, and rules to avoid bias the organization follows when collecting data. At the same time, the work that the IOM does is so binding that besides the interview prepping and the research, I also felt disappointed and a little hopeless. Small steps, in this case, do not seem to be leading to a solution.
One of the speakers we heard from stated bluntly that they were surprised to the extent that islamophobia and the fear of a migrant population has spread. Even in the face of statistics and the undeniable fact that migration stimulates an economy – a message the IOM in particular pushes with its emphasis on migration for the benefit of all – a person’s perspective can entirely change their outlook. From capping migrant populations to integrating asylum seekers, the amorphous power of the media and flawed human perspective has a death grip on the refugee crisis. Even academics and those with liberal, demoncratic values are not immune to these passions, as we learned time and time again through readings and conversations with those on the forefront of the refugee crisis. Any step forward in finding a solution to this crisis will require collaboration and understanding on all sides; essentially, it will require malleable perspectives.
The image I’ve included is one that I took inside of a church called St. Michael’s in the heart of the Vienna. At the time, I was mesmerized by the emotion in the sculpted scene behind the altar. On the walls of the apse, the Fall of Man plays out. In the foreground, life-size statues of Jesus’s disciples read or engage each other in conversation. While the underlying stories of the two situations don’t match up, if you take away the moral components of the scene, this is an image of a bunch of people being evicted from a place – people made refugees, demons or not. One can extend the metaphor further, if they’d like: the erudite population is detached from the the scene behind them, in the same way the major populace of heaven (the free floating cherubs) is detached from the small, violent group that is actually expelling the fallen angels.